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Chan Gailey's Offense: The Spread

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

This will be the first installment in an I don't know how many part series over the course of the offseason taking a look at some of the concepts in Chan Gailey's offense.

Chan Gailey in his last stop in Buffalo embraced a spread offense. What is a spread offense? It's a term you hear a lot. There are many different varieties, but what it ultimately means is the offense uses a lot of formations with players lined up spread across the entire field rather than one that keeps its players in the same general area before the snap.

Gailey has used a number of different offensive styles in his years, but his time in Buffalo indicates he has adapted to the new age reliance on the spread. Why do I say that? In his final season with the Bills, no team had a higher percentage of plays with 3 or more receivers and no team ran a higher percentage of plays with an empty backfield. Gailey's three most productive receivers that year were Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, and T.J. Graham. This seems to indicate Gailey's philosophy focusing on the spread than him using it because of personnel.


So what are the advantages to going heavy with a spread offense?

The biggest one is probably spacing. The less defenders there are in an area, the better things are for the offense. Why? Because more defenders means more players capable of making a tackle. If you have three guys in an area, and guy one misses, two more will be there to clean up. By stretching the defense out horizontally over the entire field, it puts less defenders into the area no matter where the ball goes.

For a visual representation, look at the high tech GGN graphics below.

In these graphics, X's are offensive players. The red X is the player with the ball. O's are defensive players.

In the top graphic, the three offensive players are all in the same area. Each is covered by one defensive player. Since the offensive players are in the same area, the defensive players are too. There are three players capable of making the tackle. In the bottom graphic, the offensive players are spread into different areas. The defensive players are too. Now there is only one player who can tackle the ball handler. A missed tackle could mean a big play.

This has an impact in the passing game, but it does in the run game too. With receivers spread out across the field, there are less players in the box.


Look at the top picture out of a spread formation against the bottom in a traditional I formation with a tight end. The top has five combined defensive linemen and linebackers close to the line. The bottom has seven. The other team has to either move linebackers and linemen away or replace them with backup defensive backs.

The offense does lose two blockers, a tight end and a fullback, but that can be a winning trade for a team without strong blockers in those positions like the Jets currently. Instead of having those players block, their redeployment eliminates original tacklers. For a back like Ivory, having less big guys to deal with is probably an advantage anyway. One missed tackle, and he can run a long way.

That thing about forcing the defense to take starting linebackers and linemen off the field and replacing them with defensive backs is something to consider on any play. You presumably weaken a defense when you force it to play backups instead of starters.

All of these are potential advantages to using spread formations heavily, but the biggest one might be the manner in which they make the lives of the quarterback easy.

Now think about passing plays and use the same two pictures above. By forcing more defenders away from the snap, you have limited the blitz possibilities. Less guys lined up near the ball mean less potential blitzers and blitz combinations.

There's a reason there are not many men on this planet capable of playing the position effectively in the NFL. A quarterback has to synthesize a ton of information immediately after the snap. Within three seconds give or take, he has determine how many players are blitzing, what the coverage looks like underneath, how many defenders are over the top, and how his current playcall meshes with that.

Spreading the defense out can help the quarterback determine at least some of this before the snap and leave less on his plate after the snap.

If you have five guys split wide and somebody not lined up against all of them, you can guess the coverage is some sort of zone.

If you have a tight end or back who is a particularly adept receiver, you can split him wide and see whether the defense will tip you presnap. This one happened to the Jets. It is Rob Gronkowski. Before the snap, Calvin Pryor is lined up across from him. There aren't many reasons a safety would be out wide like that across from a tight end if he is not going to be in man coverage. In this case, Tom Brady could see the coverage. Even more, he could see that this man coverage had given him a mismatch, Pryor vs. Gronkowski, so he could attack it. Right off the snap, he fired for a touchdown.

Does this sound like a way to use Jace Amaro? I think it might be.

There are plenty of things to discuss with Chan Gailey's offense. The first impacts the play before the snap.